Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

John Deming

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

Probably the goals vary quite a bit from critic to critic. I can think of three pretty good ones.

First, a goal should be to follow the same kind of impulse that makes anyone want to write about anything, regardless of the piece of writing’s stated label or genre. I don’t think that the impulse to write a book review is much different from the impulse to write anything else. The goal is to create an interesting piece of writing. A movie, an album, a book of poems can be as much muse as the Brooklyn Bridge. People often write poems in response to other poems; criticism is just another mode of expression, or perhaps a slightly different kind of investigation, depending on the nature of the review. I’m always surprised when people judge criticism as a kind of secondary or purely responsive medium; it is, but no more so than any other mode of expression.

A second goal would be to listen to the book and to treat it as the real literature that the poet is trying to create. This means being skeptical of your initial emotional responses and ensuring you are actively trying to enter the work on its own terms. As Gus Haynes says in The Wire, you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything—so a book ought to be read closely and repeatedly. A reviewer who goes too far down the path of some flip, emotional response, or “first response,” might be seriously tempted to seek only passages in the text that confirm this emotion. This is the way that conspiracy theorists work—they start with an answer and only seek evidence that will confirm it—and it is not useful in serious criticism. (Often there is also the impulse to impose one’s own predetermined obsessions into someone else’s work; for example, someone on a Karl Marx kick might be tempted to see a book of poems in terms of a proletariat/bourgeoisie divide. In these cases, the reviewer is prioritizing him-/herself over the work. I’m sure interesting work can be done in this mode, but it is important that a reviewer be fully aware of his/her mechanisms. Not every poet is ‘obviously inspired by John Berryman’ just because you love Berryman.)

For me, a third goal would simply be: say something interesting about the book, and to ensure that your ideas are as powerful, or more powerful, than your tone. Mean-spirited writing can make me people laugh (I’m thinking William Logan, etc), but this is not much different from people laughing alongside a schoolyard bully. I also think David Lehman’s introduction to the Best American Poetry 2009 is instructive: “Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice—if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility, but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll ‘slip into oblivion without my help,’ he would say.” I see a lot of criticism out there where half-baked ideas are smothered over in sass or provocation; this eventually comes off as bitter at best, stalker-ish at worst. It is the most base kind of persuasion, a sort of Bill O’Reilly persuasion that says “if I’m this worked up, I must be right.” A reviewer’s emotional responses are very important, but they need to be kept in check and seriously scrutinized throughout the entire process.

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books?

Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

It is important to avoid pushing some over-arching agenda with regard to positive and negative reviews. If you are setting out to do one or the other, your reading of a new text will be corrupted before you finish page one. O’Hara suggests that the impulse to review something negatively should be disregarded, and that we ought to ignore it. I understand that bad work might go away on its own, but I think the whole question is a bit beside the point. If you feel the urge to respond to a text, and if you have thoroughly-considered, apt criticisms of the text—if they are interesting, if they raise new questions—write the criticism. A so-called “negative” review can be illuminating.

There is nothing wrong with treating a book like serious literature and analyzing it on those terms. If it is all back-patting—everything is excellent, and the poets are singing around a campfire, singing—it can only make the art form seem disingenuous. In my experience, many poets appreciate being taken seriously, not being fluffed up. Actually, I’ve seen it go both ways; a few years ago, we published one of our most critical reviews ever, and the poet wrote us a gracious e-mail saying, “that review was not in my interest, but it was in poetry’s.” Another time, a poet-reviewer attempted to “friend” a poet on Facebook after giving the poet a lukewarm review; the poet denied the request and wrote a kind of nasty response about how the reviewer perhaps did not realize how much words can hurt.

Some reviews seem to use love as a rudder, and some use anger; I don’t think either is effective on its own, because they lead to flabby praise or adolescent brattiness. One issue is that poetry is a bit different from other mediums like music, film, and art in that the critics are almost always practitioners themselves. This is a tricky situation, because of course it is entirely possible for someone to give the kind of serious consideration of their friend’s book that I have described above. But sometimes, it is adverb-ridden, empty praise that says nothing compelling about the book. In our submission guidelines, we ask that any such relationships be disclosed at the time of submission, only so that we have full context for the review.

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

We all overlook so much, and I don’t just mean poets or poetry critics, but film critics, music critics, art critics. Infinitely more is created each year than any one publication can suitably respond to, and I am glad that poetry is proliferating enough that it can be considered part of this camp.

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I am very inspired by some very good poets who are also very good critics; some of them are very prolific in both modes, and you probably know some of the people I am talking about. Their criticism only makes me more interested in their poetry, not less. There are younger poets whose criticism I love to publish, and whose criticism made me more interested in discovering their poetry: Diana Arterian, Rachel Mennies, Peter Longofono, Mark Gurarie, Jason Bredle, Erin Lynn, Wendy S. Walters, Jason Schneiderman, P. J. Gallo... there are many more. Reading a poet’s ideas about poetry certainly can spur interest in the poet’s work if the poet’s ideas are interesting. I frequently return to Harold Bloom, T. S. Eliot, even some criticism by Robert Bly. Charles Simic is an excellent critic. These are some obvious names.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

Saying there are too many poets is like saying there are too many people exercising. Not everyone will turn out to be Michael Phelps, but so what? It’s good for you, and I say the more poets, the better. I think that anxiety over the “glut” comes from the very real understanding that it is not possible to keep track of it all; no one is going to read 2,000-plus books in a year, let alone all the books of criticism, the reissues, etc. But telling someone that they shouldn’t practice an art form that gives them meaning—and that they shouldn’t try to publish because too many others are doing the same—seems arrogant to me. There is an interview with John Ashbery where he is asked about poetry in decline, and he makes the point that when he was younger, there was really only one poetry magazine, and now there are so many magazines, presses, etc. It grows every year, and it is much more similar now to something like independent music. The old model of a handful of Mount Rushmore poets is fading now that at least dozens of excellent new books are published each year. I think of these lines from a prose poem in Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End: “The time of minor poets is coming. Goodbye Whitman, Dickinson, Frost.” That’s not to say we won’t have figureheads, only that whole landscape will be more nuanced, as it is with independent music.

This is obviously difficult for an art form that has kept track of itself by way of anthologies. No one book is going to be able to handle it all anymore, if it ever could in the first place. At Coldfront, we try to seriously read as much of this new poetry as possible, to make interesting writing about it, and each year in January, to communicate what seem to us to be the most important works of the year. Two separate Top 40 lists in two different publications might include a completely different set of 40 books, and neither would be objectively right or wrong; ideally, something interesting is said about the books, and people who care enough can talk and write about it, or hopefully, look into some of the work.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

First, far too many reviews open with some sweeping, impossible to qualify statement about the state of contemporary poetry and then leverage that against this exciting poet, who is bucking the trend. There is no one state of American poetry. There are thousands of poets working in every conceivable mode, and it is important not to let the point of sky you’ve been looking represent the whole sky. It is the classic Straw Man argument, and it comes from a lack of critical acumen; the reviewer can only get in by saying what the book isn’t, not what it is. Too often, the generalization at the beginning is misleading, designed to suit the reviewer’s purposes.

Second, resist “labeling” as your fundamental approach. Too many critics get caught up in the practice of lumping a poet or book into a category, then rejecting the whole category, thereby rejecting the poet or his/her book. Surely some “conceptual” poetry is better than other conceptual poetry, for example, and no one is done any favors when the argument is based on the “validity” of a genre or mode. This also happens when poets get lumped in with other poets—if you are spending more time talking about who the poet is similar to than you do talking about the lines themselves, this is a problem. Use your base assumption as weapons, not crutches, and never stop challenging these assumptions.

Third, I would say don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t let a first response dictate your reading of the book. Write down that first response, and seek to challenge it as much as you seek to confirm it.

Finally, to borrow a phrase from reality television, be in it for the right reasons. Of course, there are many “right reasons,” and the best is probably that you read something and felt inspired to write about it. But I'll repeat, shallow praise and overt bullying are quite boring, all things considered.